The uplifting true story of world’s oldest primary school student, “The First Grader” reels you in with its human-interest hook, but packs an even more vital agenda: enlisting Kenyan locals to share little-known details of their nation’s independence. So, while relatively conventional in the telling and more than a little manipulative, director Justin Chadwick’s admirable effort manages to do more than inspire, educating auds with an important chapter in African history — specifically, the treatment of Mau Mau freedom fighters. Judging by its enthusiastic, wet-eyed reception at the Telluride Film Festival, pic should have no trouble filling seats in specialty release.
When the Kenyan government declared free public education for all in 2002, 84-year-old Kikuyu tribesman Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (played by Oliver Litondo) decided to take them up on their offer, even though the system wasn’t designed to handle adults. “The First Grader” begins with Maruge’s arrival at the gates of his local school, where the sympathetic principal, Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris), and her skeptical colleague (Alfred Munyua) are forced to turn away the old man.
But Maruge — a figure simultaneously unassuming and iconic, proudly clutching his walking stick — is too stubborn to be so easily dissuaded, returning day after day until Obinchu finally agrees to let him join her overcrowded classroom (there are only 50 desks for 200 students). As appealing as auds may find the image of an out-of-place old farmer surrounded by children, one doubts they would react similarly if someone Maruge’s age tried to enroll alongside their kids; still, screenwriter Ann Peacock (“The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”) treats this as an unquestionable right, lending a petty villainy to any who would stand in Maruge’s way.
While Obinchu tries to manage Maruge’s disruptive presence from within — never easy, as something so simple as sharpening his pencil can trigger violent flashbacks to the revolution — opposition comes from every side. Though Peacock expands the situation (which the producers first discovered in a Los Angeles Times story) for the sake of drama, her characters’ motives feel frustratingly over-simplified, as when Obinchu’s disapproving boss (Vusi Kunene) decides to transfer her to a school 300 miles away — just the excuse Chadwick needs to stage his own “O Captain! My Captain!” scene.
Visually speaking, the “Bleak House” helmer (who finally emerged from the realm of British TV with 2008’s “The Other Boleyn Girl”) was more than ready for the broader canvas, even if his material seems to be stuck in movie-of-the-week mode. With his artfully shallow focus and gorgeous widescreen lensing, d.p. Rob Hardy gives “The First Grader’s” Third World environment perhaps the classiest treatment possible, while African music authentic to Maruge’s Kikuyu roots gives things an effective emotional uplift.
The director insisted on shooting the film in Kenya, and, with the exception of nine outsiders (Harris and himself included), Chadwick found all the cast, crew and extras he needed on location. Litondo, who brings an ornery old charm to the role of Maruge, had worked as an anchorman for a local TV channel, while his young classmates (effectively individualized despite their neatly matching gingham and red uniforms) were played by actual Kenyan schoolchildren.
A second actor, Lwanda Jawar, plays a younger version of Maruge during flashbacks to the Mau Mau Rebellion, the hateful glower in his eyes so different from the old man’s sensitive stare that you’d swear they were different people. Though these brutal interruptions counter the feel-good nature of the main plot, they offer an invaluable history lesson about Kenya under British colonial rule. We know Maruge was separated from his wife and children during the uprising, but when the scene comes, it’s a wrenching testament to his sacrifice, later reinforced in the reading of a letter from Kenya’s president.
Despite strong character work in earlier popcorn movies, including “28 Days Later” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” pics, Harris has never been handed such an opportunity to shine, and she rises to the occasion. As an assertive woman in a male-dominated culture, Obinchu faces an entirely different set of prejudices from Maruge, and Harris, as the film’s radiant heart, uses those challenges to broaden the character beyond the inspirational teacher cliche.